Though the tournament had been several days before, the children were still talking about it to Master Herve. At last, when they had all told everything they could remember, Henri said to the old man, "Now, Master Herve, you must tell us a story; it's your turn!"
"Well, well," said old Herve, "what shall it be?"
"Tell us something about Duke William!" exclaimed Marie. "You have told us about other dukes, but I would like to know something more about him."
"Our Duke William is a wonderful man," said Herve, "but great and strong and powerful as he is now, I can remember the time, forty years ago, when he was just a tiny baby, and folks said that when he first reached out his little hand he clutched hold of a straw from the floor where he lay and held it so tightly that the wise women who saw him declared it was a sign he would hold fast in after life to whatever dominion he might win.
"But it didn't look much then, nor for a long while after, as if he would ever have much dominion to hold."
"Why not?" asked Blanchette.
"Because none of the Norman nobles were his friends. They all hated the helpless baby; for though his father was the Duke Robert the Magnificent, and the true descendant of Rolf the Ganger, his mother was not noble but the daughter of a tanner of leather which, you know, is a grade looked down on in Normandy. She was a very beautiful girl, and Duke Robert had first seen her one day when she was washing clothes in the little stream that flows near the castle of Falaise where he was then living."
"Why was he called 'the Magnificent'?" asked Alan.
"Well," said Herve, "that was because he was very rich and spent a great deal of money, though often he spent it very foolishly. He was very fond of little William, and proud of his handsome face and bright ways. But when William was only seven years old Duke Robert made up his mind to go on a pilgrimage."
"Why do people go on pilgrimages, Master Herve?" interrupted one of the pages.
"They go because they want to pray at some holy place to have their sins forgiven," answered Herve.
"Did you ever go?" asked another of the children.
"No," replied Master Herve, "but my father did once. He went to Saint Michael's Mount, a very holy island near Normandy. It was when I was a little chap not half so big as Josef there," and Herve nodded to little Josef sitting between Blanchette and Marie. "It was the year 1000, and for some reason or another folks got it into their heads that the world was coming to an end. So they thought a good deal about their sins and the next world, and all who could started off on pilgrimages."
"Did the world come to an end?" asked little Josef, with wide eyes.
"No, no child!" laughed Master Herve. "This is the same old world that it was sixty-six years ago. Nothing happened, but people had got so in the habit of making pilgrimages that pilgrims have been plenty ever since. And many of them are noble, too, like Duke Robert the Magnificent."
"Did he walk all the way?" inquired Blanchette. "And did he carry a staff and wear a brown robe and a broad-brimmed hat and a rope around his waist, like the pilgrims who come here so often to eat and stay all night?"
"Do you suppose he wore a hair shirt, Master Herve, like Duke William Long-Sword?" asked Henri.
"Indeed he didn't," replied old Herve with another laugh; "Duke Robert wasn't that kind! He put on his best clothes and went off on horseback and took along quantities of good things to eat and ever so many people to wait on him; and when he got tired riding he had six black men to carry him in a kind of fancy bed. I dare say he did get tired, though," added Herve, "for it wasn't to any of the shrines in Normandy that he went; no, Duke Robert had made up his mind to go way off to Jerusalem.
"Before he started he gathered the Norman nobles together and insisted that they promise to be loyal to little William; he wished them to consider him their overlord while he was away. The nobles were very proud and haughty, and most of them didn't at all like the idea of promising loyalty to the little boy. But at last they consented, though some of them were very angry about it and said a great many disagreeable things behind Duke Robert's back.
"Duke Robert, however, placed little William in the care of his cousin, Alan of Brittany, and then set out on his pilgrimage.
"Everything about his party was very splendid, and as he came near the Holy Land he had his horse shod with silver shoes and ordered them nailed on so loosely that every once in a while one would tumble off in the road for anybody to pick up who happened along. Of course this was a very silly thing to do, but Duke Robert seemed to like to do queer extravagant things.
"It was a long, long journey; but at last he reached Jerusalem and prayed at all the holy places, and then he started home again. But he never came back to Normandy, for he died on the way.
"The journey had taken three years, so William was ten years old when the news reached Normandy that his father was dead. He was a very friendless little boy indeed; and before long his guardian, Alan of Brittany, was murdered. Everybody was fighting everybody else and there was no safety anywhere. To be sure, things weren't quite so bad from Wednesday evenings till Monday mornings."
"Why was that?" asked one of the children.
"Why, that was because there was so much lawlessness and bloodshed that the church proclaimed what was called the 'Truce of God,' which meant that people must not rob or kill each other on certain days of the week. But between Mondays and Wednesdays," went on the old man with a sigh, "they seemed to make up for lost time. Of course there is still a good deal of quarreling and fighting here and there in Normandy, but it's nothing to what it was when Duke William was a boy!"
"What did he do?" asked Alan.
"Well, to tell the truth," answered the old man, "I don't know how in the world the lad ever managed to pull along and hold his own against all he had to contend with; but he did it somehow. I guess just because he's a born ruler. When he was fifteen he demanded to be made a knight."
"Oh, Master Herve," exclaimed Henri, "did you know Hugh is to be made a knight and go with Count Bertram to Britain?"
"Yes," said Herve, "Hugh will be twenty-one and has served his time as page and squire. But Duke William was only fifteen, remember, yet a brave knight he was; and he had to be alert and fearless, for his enemies were all about him. One time he had a very narrow escape. He was at his castle of Valognes, and sound asleep in the middle of the night, when suddenly there came a quick knocking at his door; it was his fool, Goelet."
"His fool?" echoed one of the younger pages, inquiringly.
"Yes," said Marie, "I remember last year when the Baron of Gisors came to visit Count Bertram, how he brought along a funny little man they called his fool. He was queerly dressed, and had a cap all covered with bells like a falcon wears!"
"And it jingled all the while," broke in Blanchette, "and he carried a short stick that he called a bauble; it had a little head with donkey ears carved at one end! And he capered around and said anything he pleased to the baron, and everybody laughed at him!"
"Yes," said Herve, "many nobles and kings keep such a fool, or jester, whose business it is to amuse them. But when William's fool knocked on his door with his bauble that night, it wasn't any joke. 'Master!' he cried, 'Quick, get up! I have just heard of a plot your enemies have made against you, and they are coming now to take you!'
"William jumped out of bed, hurried on his clothes, rushed down the winding stair to the stable, jumped on the back of his horse and galloped out into the dark, off toward his strong castle of Falaise.
"All night he galloped, helter-skelter, over fields and ditches, any way that was the shortest cut to Falaise.
"Duke William never forgot that wild ride for his life; and, long after, he had the helter-skelter path he had taken made into a fine road which is called 'the Duke's Road.'
"But though William was safe for a time at Falaise, his enemies were still plotting against him; and soon his cousin, Guy of Burgundy, began to claim that he ought to be duke instead of William.
"Then William gathered together all his friends he could and got the King of France to help him. Guy of Burgundy, collected all the Normans who were enemies of William and a great battle was fought at a place called Val-es-Dunes. In the end William conquered, and after that almost all the nobles went over to his side.
"Yes, indeed, our Duke William is a wonderful man," repeated old Herve, "and the greatest ruler Normandy has ever had."
"Who will rule Normandy while he is gone to Britain?" asked Alan.
"Why," said Master Herve, "I hear it said the Duchess Matilda will. Duke William has such a high opinion of his wife, the duchess, that he is not afraid to trust Normandy to her care."
"Mother says Duchess Matilda is a wonderful woman," said Blanchette, "and that nobody can embroider so well as she can!"
"Yes," answered Herve, "she is a great lady. Duke William had a good deal of trouble to get her, but he was so in love with her that he won out in the end."
"Why did he have trouble to get her?" asked Marie.
"Well," said old Herve, "I guess she was willing enough, and so was her father the rich and powerful Count of Flanders, but it seems some people said she and William were relations and the laws of the church forbid relations to marry each other. I don't believe they are more than fourth or fifth cousins, if that; but at any rate some of William's enemies told a different story to the Pope, the head of the church, so for four years the lovers were kept apart. Then one day Duke William hurried up to his castle of Eu, on the border of Flanders and Normandy, met the Lady Matilda, and they were quickly married by a parish priest and then came to William's palace in the city of Rouen. And if they had no splendid processions at their wedding they had plenty afterward, for all the way to Rouen the people cheered them and gave great parties for them and greeted them right royally. And everybody said there wasn't a handsomer couple in all Normandy.
"The Pope was greatly displeased about it, but at last he forgave them, only making each promise to build a church as penance for getting married without his permission."
"And did they build them?" asked Blanchette.
"Yes, indeed, child!" answered Herve. "Duke William and Duchess Matilda always keep their word. They began the churches right away in the city of Caen, and they are so fine and grand that it has taken these twenty years since to finish them. They built them right willingly though, for all Normandy knows that the duke and duchess love each other and their marriage is very happy.
"But run along now, children! I have told you enough for one day!"